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Saving the spoon-billed sandpiper

Interviewer
This is history in the making never seen before.

So these are spoon-billed sandpipers and here they are arriving, when was it, Friday evening?

Martin McGill
Yes, on Friday at Heathrow Airport they’ve come into the animal reception centre there to be checked over.

Interviewer
And we can just see them through the mesh, they’re in a big wooden crate here, and yet you can see, well they’re very small birds to begin with and they’ve got this terrific, look at that. 

Martin McGill
Wonderful yeah! 

Interviewer
One’s just looking at it just now.  Terrific spoon-shaped black bill. 

Martin McGill
Yeah, they are small birds, sparrow sized.

Interviewer
Oh that small? 

Martin McGill
Yeah, the body at least but they’ve got longer legs and this incredible bill shape which makes them stand out from anything else in the world really. 

Interviewer
This video, everybody concerned looks mightily relieved that the birds have got back. 

Martin McGill
They’d just taken them out of the crates that they’d been transported in, having a bathe there, very important to keep the plumage in good order, so they’re actually bathing in one of the pools there. 

Interviewer
But they are beautiful birds.  They’re intricately patterned in browns and beiges, white underneath, there’s still a hint of chestnut on them as well from their summer plumage.

Martin McGill
There’s a little bit of warmth in the plumage still yeah. 

Interviewer
But as you say, you had about the size of a big sparrow, with this extraordinary long black bill with a spoon shape at the end of it.  Now Christoph Zockler what’s your role in the spoon-billed sandpiper project?

Dr Christoph Zockler
Yeah, my role is the coordinator of the task force to save the species, which is, as you know, a migratory species breeding in Eastern Russia, and migrating all the way through 14 countries in Asia, wintering in Bangladesh and Myanmar, so it’s a lot of threats.  And we have many, many partners involved in the region but also outside here in the UK, and I’m working on behalf of Birds Russia to coordinate the saving of the species. 

Interviewer
Just recap for me the reason why the spoon-billed sandpiper is in such a desperate plight at the moment. 

Dr Christoph Zockler
Being on this particular fly with, exposed to lots of threats, and we have seen many changes of intertidal habitats in Korea and China over the years and decades.  And increasingly also we’ve found out the birds are hunted and taken by local people who are very poor.  They’re not targeting spoon-billed sandpipers but they are as a by-catch if you want in the nets and killed by that as well, and we’re just addressing this at the moment.  So there are various threats which makes the species plummeting, over the course of 12 years I’m working with this species we’ve seen the decline of at least 60 to 70%.

Interviewer
Now I know quite a lot of work’s been done over the past few years to try and educate people to let these birds go, to not catch them if they get them in their nets, obviously that’s going to be a slow process then. 

Dr Christoph Zockler
No, surprisingly not as slow as we might have thought, because in Myanmar most of these people are Buddhists, and they always felt bad about catching these birds anyway.  Of course we have to follow up and get the communities involved to foster all these programmes so that these local people and hunters are part of the community and being looked after by the communities. 

Interviewer
But you obviously, you and your partners thought that education wasn’t enough, because these birds have been taken into captivity and that’s why they’re at Slimbridge at the moment, so things must have been pretty desperate.

Dr Christoph Zockler
Things were very desperate because we realised that, especially since 2004 and 2005 things went bad and bad, and we haven’t noticed any recruitment.  With recruitment I mean we didn’t see any of those young we ringed coming back to the breeding areas.  It was getting very close so we couldn’t just wait and see if that is successful.  We decided to do this conversation breeding programme as a backup. 

Interviewer
Now, Martin McGill, you must be the envy of most bird watchers around the world, and scientists around the world, because you’ve seen the spoon-billed sandpiper in its natural habitat, and you were there weren’t there, when these eggs were gathered.  Tell me more about that operation.

Martin McGill
Yes, I feel very very fortunate to have clapped eyes on the spoon-billed sandpiper in the wild.  Yeah, went out to Russia and just played a waiting game to try to get to the study area, which is quite typical, happens every year, but you have to have the right weather conditions to get to a small settlement known as Meinypil’gyno.  Then we just had to wait for the birds to arrive, which they duly did and quickly settled down to set up territories. 

Interviewer
When you’d found your clutches, what happened to the eggs then? 

Martin McGill
Because eggs were being predated, we actually found a female which had been killed on the nest and the eggs were predated.  We changed our original plan of leaving them out as long as possible, and actually brought them in early.  So we brought the eggs into artificial incubation a little bit earlier than we initially planned to. 

Interviewer
And those chicks, when were they transferred to Moscow Zoo?

Martin McGill
That was in late August, I think that’s where they’ve been until now. 

Interviewer
Given that these birds feed on tiny tiny invertebrates, I think probably a lot of mosquito larvae, those sort of things, or mosquitoes and everything, was it easy to keep them going? 

Martin McGill
Well initially we had a lot of experience of mosquitoes, a lot of personal experience where at times you did have to strip off and sacrifice your skin to attract as many as possible.  But that was so I could net them, because all this is new since we just wanted to get them off to a good start. 

Interviewer
Now they’ve arrived at Slimbridge and there aren’t any mosquitoes about, what are you going to feed them on here?

Martin McGill
Well the warm weather at the moment there are a few, but we have an artificial food which has been designed, developed for wading birds to feed upon, and they seem to do very well on that, they’re thriving on it. 

Interviewer
What’s the future for these particular birds, will they always stay in captivity? 

Martin McGill
This initial group will remain in captivity as the nucleus of a captive breeding programme.  Their offspring or a future offspring could be re-established back in the wild, but as I say we’ve had to develop all of those techniques.

Interviewer
Well it’s a big unknown isn’t it, I mean this is a terrific risk to take with the population that’s probably fewer than 100 breeding pairs, you’ve got to get this right really haven’t you? 

Martin McGill
Yeah, and everything that’s thrown up, every wall that’s put in front of you, you just have to deal with it and get through it, and a lot of people are involved in this.  We can’t fail.  We just don’t want to see this species disappearing from the face of the earth.  It’s got to work. 

Interviewer
You’ve got one hurdle over now, because the birds have arrived back, they look pretty fit, they’re safe and sound now, when will they go into a larger enclosure beyond quarantine? 

Martin McGill
It’s 30 days in quarantine, there’s a purpose built facility where the birds will be transferred to once they’ve passed the quarantine period, and it’s pretty luxurious so it should be perfect to meet all of their needs, make sure that they thrive. 

Interviewer
Will they be on view to the public as well? 

Martin McGill
No, I’m afraid they’re such a rare endangered species that we’ve got to minimise the contact really with humans. 

Interviewer
Christoph, just looking at the future of the spoon billed sandpiper, if you hadn’t intervened what do you think it would have been? 

Dr Christoph Zockler
Well, we were actually quite lucky with the recent two years, I would say, to mitigate the hunting pressure so rapidly that I’m much more hopeful that we might actually not need to release captive-bred birds into the wild.  But it’s always good to have this backup in place here in Slimbridge, so I’m very grateful that this is happening.  But I hope that the population which is now estimated well below 100 pairs, but we have some very interesting observations if I may tell you briefly about this.  One is from Myanmar in the spring, we had a flock of 12 birds quite late, in late April, about to go back into the breeding areas and 10 of them were in non-breeding plumage.  That means they were juveniles from last year, so quite a good sign that some juveniles at least survived one winter.  They stay one year in the wintering grounds, and in the second year when they are mature for breeding, then they go back.  So that’s a good sign which gives us a little bit of hope.  The other sign which gave us hope was news from this autumn from China, our partners from the Shanghai Bird Watching Society managed to find two flocks which totalled 103 birds, now that is amazing isn’t it?

Interviewer
Right, so there may be more birds out there you think than may have been surveyed. 

Dr Christoph Zockler
There may be more birds out there as we think, because we can only account for about 40 breeding pairs, we don’t know where the other 60, which we still estimate are breeding, because we found this year, and I was very fortunate to be on a cruise ship which was specifically targeting new areas to look for new breeding sites.  And we did find a territory new with at least three territories maybe more, but yet we don’t know where all these birds which we are still estimating 100 are breeding.  But 103, if we are assuming for example 100 breeding pairs, that is 200 adult birds and another 200 of young which are not yet breeding, so there’s about 400 birds, so we have about one third of these birds in one place in China.  So that is good news, but also very urgent news, this site is not protected in China so we need to do something urgently. 

Interviewer
Yeah, I was going to ask you, given that the captive breeding programme, if it goes well here will be providing some sort of stability for a small percentage of the population, what can be done in the meantime to make sure that the catch is minimised and the birds are protected out in the wild? 

Dr Christoph Zockler
We have been targeting two areas in the wintering area in Myanmar or Burma, where we have been very successful and almost all villages have agreed and the hunt has stopped.  The other area is Bangladesh, also very important wintering area for spoon-billed sandpiper.  It’s more difficult, different attitude from the local people, they’re not so, they’re a bit more reluctant to give up hunting, and we need to work harder.  But we have again a very good partner, the Bird Club in Bangladesh is helping us to address these, and very successful, we have 14 hunting agreements signed by the local people so we are making progress.  And we do have to do this progress, because what’s the point to release them back into the wild if they are still be caught, so we need to make at the same time progress in the wild before we actually can really start thinking about releasing the birds which might be bred here in captivity and hopefully will be.  So we have to work on both sides, here in Slimbridge, make sure that we have a good and strong and healthy population in captivity to be able to release if time is right, and very importantly we have to work on the migration route and the wintering area.

Interviewer
So a long way to go yet.

Dr Christoph Zockler
Still a long way to go but I’m very hopeful, I wasn’t so hopeful a year ago.

Dur: 11’28”

Creative commons image Credit: _IGP4163 / ken / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 The spoon-billed sandpiper